Monday, October 13, 2008

How do full-time working mothers do it?

Last week I walked in the shoes of a full-time working mother – well, I ran actually, and frantically so, never quite managing to keep up. This week as my life resumes its gentle pace I am still recovering. The weekend is definitely not long enough to meet everyone’s needs. As a result I am filled with respect, horror, pity, envy and so many other emotions, when I think of all the mothers of small children who work a 40+ hour week. Mind you I was on the first leg of my Foundation course in the Healing Arts, which felt something akin to a week in group therapy, so you might have to excuse the overload of feelings which may spill themselves onto these pages...

Actually, mostly what I feel right now is an overwhelming sense of chaos. A week of being mostly absent from this house and family bears its physical marks wherever you look. There are piles of crumpled clean laundry, but no clean nappy covers and no shirts for James. There are sticky pink hand prints (pink factor infinity sunblock) all over the mirrors... and there are mirrored cupboards in every room of this house. The kitchen is overflowing with dirty plates and the ants come marching one by one. Jemima’s school book did not make it back into her bag, I daren’t look at my emails and I’m behind on my yoga homework. And this is today, and from just a quick surface glance around me.

Ask James what it was like here last week. Or put it this way, I am not the only one who is extremely happy not to be working full-time. The poor guy would reluctantly offer to make dinner, very quietly, no doubt desperately hoping I would not hear him. There was no milk for breakfast, pasta and tomato for dinner four days in a row, (I did hear him), Cham who runs Matthe’s playgroup has still not been paid... And Bella would physically prise Jemima off me when I made my daily dash back home for lunch and breastfeed.

The only member of our family who was happy to see me at work was the cat. She got to eat tinned tuna every day because it took me a whole week to get round to getting her biscuit. And notice that despite having acknowledged all the mess and the neglected children, I am not dealing with any of it but instead hiding away blogging about it while Bella has gone to Cham’s again? This is how bad it got.

But I am acknowledging it. And this is a relief to me. Because for a while last week I found myself slipping so easily into another world, where my priorities were what I would wear each day to look respectable for my course, taking time before leaving the house to prepare myself for the course, or do some yoga to help deal with my aching body and thudding heart and head (I was being serious about the group therapy thing!) By day three I was starting to consider not coming back for lunch so I could get to know my colleagues, thereby pretty much stopping breastfeeding Bella all day, and not putting her down for her nap myself.

Ok, ok. I know lots of mothers would think nothing of all this. But this is me! The same me who has written a whole chapter in my never-to-be-published book about the joys and importance of at least half-time but preferably full-time motherhood for children. Me who keeps a blog mostly in order to regularly extol the virtues of responsive parenting. And this is the thing. Controversial though it may be to say this, it is impossible to be a truly responsive mother and work full-time. Actually wait, probably if you are a truly responsive mother and you do not have to work full-time you would not, for that very reason. I know very responsive mothers who have no choice but to work full time here, usually because their partner is not here to help, and I bet/know they find it very hard... not just for their kids but for themselves. They co-sleep, they devote every minute of spare time to their children, they do an amazing job raising happy children. Respect!

So perhaps what I mean is that for ME it is impossible. Because I know, being there, normally, on and off all day apart from a few hours teaching here and there, what the needs and demands of my children are. And believe me, last week I did not meet any of them. I ran out of the school each morning leaving Jemima in mid-sentence, asking me if she could show me her pictures in the class room. I ran out of the house after our hurried lunch each afternoon leaving Bella calling me and telling Jemima I would help her make Sigrid’s birthday card later (it got made ten minutes before the party yesterday). I ignored all polite requests to possibly eat something else for breakfast other than banana.

Now I know Jemima is a mature four (sounds like a graded cheddar) and can cope perfectly well with a lot of this and so she did. She made me proud. But she also told me she loved me about ten times on every occasion that she managed to snatch some time with me, and she asked to go to bed with us most evenings. Not only was I absent physically, but she knew my mind was elsewhere. And probably the chaos in the house and the absence of some of her staple diet (!) had an unsettling affect on her too.

I can imagine at this point people reading this are also feeling glad I am not working! I sound pathetic I know! This is why I am writing... to truly express my awe at anyone who manages to work and take good physical and emotional care of their children! How do you do it? When you get home at dinner time, need to feed them and bathe them and get them to sleep then and there, can you really muster up the energy to go and buy food at 8pm at night? I tell you I was so exhausted I fell asleep with them most nights. No wonder nothing else was achieved. If you are still unsympathetic remember we have no car, cannot walk out at night for vague fear of getting mugged at gunpoint, and when I did get to the bloody supermarket there were no oats because the one monthly stock was bought up by some other wiser expat who knows they only have a monthly stock. (I must find out who that is and make friends with them. I am not cut out for not being around my children.) And this is here! Where I have Sophy at home to look after Bella and take her to play with friends. If I had to drop my 14 month daughter off at childcare for nine hours a day? Well a little of the mother in me would die each time I am sure. I am so lucky to have a set up where she can be at home.

Anyway enough excuses and enough gratitude. I fully accept that I would be a hopeless working mother and whatever my circumstances I never ever plan to do this as long as we can scrape by on James’s meagre living... People use finances as a reason but I do not actually have any western friends with children on a lower salary than us. I say this not for pity, we live a great and full life, no complaints, but because for us lucky middle-income westerners with partners, it basically boils down to choice. And my choice is that I will grow my own food and stir cow poo into biogas before I become a full-time working mother. (I’ve done this before, on a farm in the Bolivian rainforest. Believe me, a truer example of love for my children does not exist. And yes I am perfectly aware that if this did become our reality they would probably ask me to stop loving them so much and go and get a decent office job, 9-5. Let’s hope it does not come to this.)

Back to reality. Bella bore it well, as far as I could see, but I was not there so how do I know? Sophy always tells me she is happy but how sensitive is she to Bella’s moods? How do I know she read her tiredness, anger, frustrations, boredom or anxiety correctly and acted upon it appropriately. I trust Sophy with caring for Bella for short periods of time and I find her kind and mostly responsive. But the Khmer approach to children is a very different one to mine. I am usually distinctly unimpressed with the way nannies care for children here in Phnom Penh when we are out and about. I often see children having tantrums that are entirely ignored by their nannies. The child’s stress levels become painful to watch and I wish I could get the parents’ number so I could call them and let them know. In their shoes I would definitely want to know about this. I sometimes catch Sophy jigging and tickling and rousing a very tired or fussing Bella, who in return gets angry and screams. She would respond far better, I try to show her, if given a soothing, gentle hug, maybe a nap or a cup of water, a pot of raisins and a cuddly story on the sofa. However much she cares for Bella she does not know her like I do and she does not read her like I would like her to. And she was affected too. She became reluctant to let go of me when saying goodbye and every night, in her sleep, when we plopped her in her little bed at the end of ours she would get up and walk back to me and collapse back down to continue her sleep draped across my body. It was very sweet, for about a minute.

Yey it’s ten o’clock. Bella will be back in a minute to help me clear this place up! I’d better wrap this up. It is really far too long to be considered a blog post. If you have got to the end thank you! And if you are a full-time working mother how on earth have you found the time?

I suppose I might have loved full-time working – I know many women can’t think of anything worse than the domestic scene I mostly find myself in. There is room for all of us luckily! I can only say how thankful and happy I feel to be back in the world where I can take time out to breastfeed Bella and make it last a chapter of my book or a ten minute snooze. Where I have the energy to make going food shopping or hanging out the washing an exciting thing to do with Mummy for the afternoon. Where I can make cooking a proper dinner last all afternoon... Bella’s a dab hand at peeling onions and garlic, if only I could find them once she has finished with them. Where I can find just enough time to myself to blog, study, teach and practice yoga without missing the girls or them missing me. Where I can spend afternoons with my friends and the kids. But mostly so that I can ban the phrase ‘maybe later darling’ from my vocabulary. For this week anyway.

Oooh, talking of which, did I tell you I have started reading the English dictionary? It’s so interesting. Hmm, reading over that does this sound a bit sad? Too bad, I love it. I get tired of using the same old words over and over. For a writer my vocabulary is not very wide really. Trust me, it’s a brilliant read, you should try it. I have only got half way through the first page of A’s so far, but I hope to make better progress now my life is back on track. I shall be back soon to show you my new improved use of the English language... lest you should feel profligate:-).

1 comment:

maddy said...

You do make me laugh! I'm with you 100% on the 'how do they do it?' bit - I had a taste of 2 weeks full-time work earlier in the year, doing a prac for my course....found it really difficult to fully throw myself into it as the kids were permanently on my mind....am already struggling to gear myself up for the next prac, which will be a full 5 weeks and is a full year away, but am already trying to work out the logistics. Like you I thrive on full-time mumming and as my eldest approaches full-time school I'm wallowing in it, relishing it and simply loving it because that time at home is all too short. xx